THE GREAT AGENCY DEBATE – HOW TO PICK AN OPEN WATER COURSE
By: Vandit Kalia
Visit any popular scuba forum, and one common question that is encountered is – which agency is better?
Well, there is an easy answer to that – none.
The standards for basic Open Water training are set by an agency called the Recreational Scuba Training Council. All the major agencies are members of this council, so the essential standards are more or less the same. That shouldnt be surprising, after all – the sport is the same, and the skills you need to know are the same as well. There are some minor differences in how agencies approach teaching, their standards and so on. However, these are akin to different routes for climbing a mountain – you get there in all cases.
The popularity of one agency over another typically has more to do with business reasons (cost of becoming an instructor, marketing benefits, cost of certifications, and so on), none of which really affect you as a student diver.
Another concern some students have is – “I have not heard of PADI/SSI/NAUI/SDI, so will my card be accepted worldwide?”
Short answer is – yes, it will.
Just because you have not heard of the smaller agencies is not really a big deal. After all, why would you, a non-diver, have heard of all the different agencies out there? You can be assured that the dive centres you visit, however, HAVE heard of these agencies and recognize them. All of them.PADI, SSI, NAUI, CMAS, SDI, ACUC, NOB, BSAC and more. They are all valid and recognized agencies. And you can also start with one and switch to another: most agencies recognize each other’s certification levels.
Look at it another way – as a dive centre, we are in the business of taking qualified divers out for dives. Why would we turn away someone from a recognized agency? Now if someone shows up with Bubbajohn’s Scuba Card, that’s one thing. But turning away a diver from another agency would only happen for two reasons: one is ignorance, and the other is some kind of personal bias or ulterior motive (perhaps selling you another course). Either is a reason to go dive with another operator.
So instead of agencies, let me give you 2 bigger variables that you should consider, when it comes to the quality of your diver training:
One is the instructor.
A good, conscientious instructor will make sure you are truly comfortable at each stage of the learning process before moving on to the next. Diligently following the standards of any agency generally ensures a thorough course. On the other hand, an instructor that cuts corners will teach a shoddy course, regardless of which agency he is affiliated with.
Another is you, the diver.
Yes, you. You are, funnily enough, responsible for your own development to some degree. No matter how well a course is taught, if you don’t get in the water again for another 6 months or a year, you can be assured that your skills will atrophy to some degree or the other. Diving, like any other sport, relies on repetition and practice for mastery. The Open Water course gets you to the point where you have learned the basic skills and are ready to continue growing them through independent diving.
To use a golfing analogy, the Open Water course would be the bit where you take your newly purchased clubs and get lessons on hitting the ball till you are able to hit the ball decently without digging up huge divots every time. However, to become a good player, you still have to go out to the course and play regularly.
Some people have a natural ability and leave the Open Water course as fairly polished divers. Others leave a little “rougher around the edges” and need a little more practice. That is fine. Diving is not a competitive sport, and as long as you are able to maintain your buoyancy and are calm in the water, it is ok if you flap your hands a little bit to steady yourself as you swim. You only get better with practice, after all.
Now let’s now look at a list of factors that you should or should not consider when doing an open water course:
Agency – there are minor differences in each of the courses. While the name of the agency is irrelevant, you should speak to your instructor about the difference between the agencies and which one is more suited to your needs, as there are some logistical differences which may matter, especially at intermediate to advanced levels.
Instructor – very important, but quite hard to evaluate. Some people say talk to the instructor and get a sense of the rapport you get from him. That works but only to a limited extent: yes, sometimes you can and do get excellent – or really poor – vibes from one particular instructor, and than can help you make a decision. However, other times you may encounter a smooth talker who may not be all the good when it comes to teaching. You can also ask about the instructor’s experience – experience is always good to have but sometimes, very experienced instructors tends to be burned out/brusque/lacking in patience, while newer instructors tend to be a lot more supportive and patient. Also, a good diver is not always a good instructor, and most agencies provide a lot of support to instructors for teaching Open Water so being a highly-experienced diver is not always needed in order to be a good instructor (although it generally does help) – so assess these factors only in conjunction with other areas. This is, admittedly, probably one of the hardest areas to evaluate and probably something to consider only after taking the next 2 points into account.
Course duration: it matters, but only in the context of how many other people are in the course. Some centers take great pride in the number of hours they have in the classroom – that’s all well and good, but the theory isnt the hard part: in-water skills are what make you a diver.
So you need to look into is how much time is spent in the water. Some places specialize in a course where confined water training is essentially rattling off all the skills once and that’s it – no swimming around and getting a hang of this whole underwater thing, no repeating various skills, etc. This then gets repeated in the Open Water portion of the course – divers go down, sit and do the skills, swim around for 5 minutes and up. Such a course has taught you the various skills of diving, but not diving. So make sure you get a course which focused on actual diving (which is where you will learn the meat & potatoes of diving).
Course policy – sometimes, even the best, most caring of instructors is hampered by dive centre policy – usually, this is “complete the course in X days.” This can mean that sometimes, portions of the course don’t get the attention they deserve. Also, as different people learn at different speeds, so what happens if you are not able to complete the skills or be thoroughly comfortable at the end of the allotted time? A good instructor will not certify you and you will only get a partial refund, if at all. This is probably better than getting a card for which you are not qualified, but it is still not the ideal solution for you.
So look into what your options are in case you have problems completing the course and need more time. The worst case would be a “sorry, better luck next time.” The better dive centers will offer you a chance to continue your training – either on a one-on-one basis, usually at an additional charge (which can be modest to extremely expensive) or by giving you a chance to jump into the next class. What you are looking for is a course where the overall setup is one that does not impose an external time/monetary pressure on you to try to complete the course within a strict timetable.
Class size – this is important. The more the number of people in the class, the more time you spend sitting around at the bottom of a pool or ocean bed waiting for others to complete their exercises. So a 45 minute session with 10 people is definitely not the same as a 45 minute session with 4 people.
Price – you are learning to go into an underwater environment where mistakes & problems, while rare, an have severe consequences. You are also getting a license which is valid for a lifetime. A properly taught course will help you fall in love with diving and ready you for a lifetime of adventure. A poor or shoddy course will leave you hating the sport. Given this, is a $50. $100 or even $150 difference in price really significant?
Hopefully, this article has provided you with a good basis with which to decide on where to do an Open Water course. We encourage you to ask around and compare our courses to those of others, and make an informed decision. Happy diving!
The author is the founder of DIVEIndia Scuba & Resorts, a NAUI Course Director and SSI Instructor Trainer. He has been teaching since 2001 and has certified over a thousand students, from Open Water to Instructor.